New Lives in Uruguay – Freedom Elusive after 12 Years at Guantanamo
LATIN AMERICA & THE CARIBBEAN, 25 May 2015
Six former Guantanamo prisoners have been sharing a house in the Uruguayan capital Montevideo for the last six months. The planned closure of the US detention facility could hinge on the outcome of this experiment.
Jihad Diyab walks with the help of crutches as he steps out of the front door of his new house on Calle Maldonado, a street in Montevideo, Uruguay, 12,000 kilometers (7,456 miles) from his native Syria.
He wants to talk outside, says Diyab. His housemates, a group of Arabs who, like Diyab, were recently released from Guantanamo and are now taking their first steps into freedom in this faraway country, don’t have to hear everything, he says. Diyab hobbles along the sidewalk until he reaches the corner, where he sinks into a plastic chair in front of a corner store. He sets his crutches against the table and leans forward.
“So,” he asks, “how do things look?”
During our first meeting a few days ago, Diyab had set a few conditions under which he would be willing to talk about how he feels, after 12 years in the hell of Guantanamo. He had said he needed a wheelchair, preferably an electric one. He also wanted a laptop, a camera and an iPhone 6, because he was planning to launch a campaign to free the prisoners still detained in that black hole in Cuba. He also said he had relatives who had fled the war in Syria, and that he would talk as soon as Germany could guarantee that they would be treated at Berlin’s university hospital Charité.
Worn By Years in Prison
Diyab has a suspicious look in his eyes. His years in prison have given his face a hard look. His T-shirt hangs loosely over his thin frame. Diyab is only 43, but his beard and his curly hair are already gray. He needs crutches because there are days when he has no sensation in the right side of his body. He believes this has something to do with worms that are eating their way through his stomach, or possibly the blows he received regularly before they forcibly inserted a tube into his nose, which was used to feed him when he refused to eat.
Over the course of eight years, he repeatedly went on hunger strikes in Guantanamo, because the Americans refused to tell what he was being charged with. Diyad was alleged to be part of an al-Qaida cell in Afghanistan, but he was never indicted. He still refused to eat after he was officially declared innocent in 2009, because he could no longer endure the years of waiting to be set free.
“I thought about it,” says Diyad. “Forget what I said. Instead, get me an appointment with Dilma, the president of Brazil. I want to ask her to accept a few of my brothers.”
The other former prisoners had warned us that Diyad was the most complicated man in their group, a loner who hatched strange ideas at night, while lying awake in his bed. What is going through his head, they wondered? Is he establishing rules because others always dictated them in years gone by? Is it about control, or dignity, or does his behavior stem from a feeling that the world owes him something?
No Regrets or Apologies from US
It is the end of March, and the trees in Montevideo are starting to lose their leaves. The men have been here for almost four months, Jihad, the outsider. Ali, who is waiting to have surgery on his right eye, in which he lost his vision after countless electroshocks. Mohammed, who wanted to study physics but can hardly remember two numbers today. The other three are Ahmed, Abdul and Omar, the youngest, who wet his orange jump suit on the flight to Uruguay because the guards wouldn’t allow him to use the toilet. Until the plane landed in Montevideo, they were forced to wear black hoods over their heads. When they arrived at the Montevideo airport on Dec. 7, shortly after midnight, they were handed a document that stated that there was “no information to indicate that they were involved in terrorist activities against the United States of America.”
The brief note was signed by Cliff Sloan who, as a special envoy for the US government, searched for countries that would accept detainees released from Guantanamo. The note contained no expression of regret or an apology.
And Uruguay, of all places.
Uruguay is a small country of 3 million people, sandwiched between Argentina and Brazil, on the left lower edge of a map of the world. All it takes to understand that the former prisoners’ old and new homes are worlds apart is to run your finger along the map, across the Atlantic, Africa and the Mediterranean, all the way to the Middle East.
There is not a single mosque in the country, and fewer than 100 Muslims live in the capital city Montevideo. Prior to the arrival of their fellow Muslims from Guantanamo, many had wondered what on earth the men could have possibly been up to when they fell into the hands of the Americans in the Afghan-Pakistani border region after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Tourism? Marveling at the cliffs of Tora Bora? The overwhelming majority of the population was also skeptical. Uruguay has very little experience in taking in refugees. It even lacks a program to reintegrate its own convicts into society when they are released from prison.
Opposition politicians wanted to know why Uruguay, of all places, should be helping to solve US President Barack Obama’s problems. Why should they care that he had declared the closing of the Guantanamo detention center a “national priority?”
Many were astonished that their former president, who had become such a strong critical voice against America’s aberrations, took up the cause of the Guantanamo detainees. José Mujica, a former leftist guerilla, has a reputation for badmouthing the “empire in the north.” He lives on a farm outside the city and drives an old blue VW Beetle. What was he thinking when, during the last few weeks of his term in office, he announced that he, the only South American leader to do so, was willing to offer a home to the Arabs from Guantanamo? And why did there have to be six when even a country like Sweden was only accepting one?
These are the coordinates that mark the beginning of a new freedom for these men: A shared house in a distant country, a small community to which each resident contributes his own trauma. Outside, the men faced a relatively consistent wall of rejection. And then there was this 79-year-old man who had successfully fought for their acceptance but had been out of office since early March.
How can this go well? And what does it mean for the future of Guantanamo?
Jihad: The Troublemaker
After the first four days, which they spent in a hospital, the six men moved into the house on Calle Maldonado, a somewhat dilapidated, two-story building from the late 1800s. The PIT-CNT trade union federation, which Mujica had asked to provide support to the new arrivals, owns the house. Union employees provided a new refrigerator in the kitchen and a computer in the foyer. When they served them ham-and-cheese baguettes on the day of their arrival, they were surprised when the Arabs didn’t touch the food. “Pork!” says Fernando Gambera, the PIT-CNT director of international relations, whose main job is to communicate with other trade unions in South America. “We didn’t think of that.”
In the first few days, journalists were camped out on the sidewalk in front of the house, like wildlife filmmakers tracking down some previously unknown species in the Serengeti. They filmed Mohammed waving from his window and documented Jihad hobbling to the corner store. Journalists also accompanied them the first time they went to the beach, where Ali wrote the words “Viva Libertad” — long live freedom — in the sand with a stick. With their freshly trimmed beards and sunglasses, the men looked like tourists.
Everyone made an effort during those first few days. Neighbors entered the house through the open door to bring the men tea and mint plants. Omar wrote a letter to the Uruguayan people, expressing his deep gratitude to President Mujica. Union officials turned a blind eye when they saw the first telephone bill, which included a charge of more than €3,000 ($3,340) for long-distance calls alone. When one of the men returned from the courtyard shaking because a neighbor’s dog had barked at him when he took out the trash, union official Gambera offered the men psychological counseling, but they refused. The first to test the limits of his new freedom was Jihad. In early February, he took the ferry to Buenos Aires, where he began searching for the relatives of his mother, who was Argentinean. The identification card issued by Uruguay permits him to travel freely in the member states of the Mercosur trading bloc, but the customs official at the port in Buenos Aires advised him to go back to Uruguay instead.
“I sometimes feel as if I have traveled from one prison to the next,” says Jihad, on a morning when he had actually intended to discuss his conditions for an interview once again. He’s sitting in a café and looks depressed, as he stares at a plate of humus for several minutes without touching the food. His parents used to have a restaurant in Damascus, he mumbles, with 100 tables arranged in the shade of enormous trees. He used to spend his afternoons there as a young boy, he says.
A smile darts across his face.
“Mujica,” he says, “promised to bring our families to Uruguay. He said we would be able to live in our own house, but now nothing is happening. Instead, they are cutting off the phone line and saying that Skype is cheaper. Why don’t they have the United States reimburse them for the costs?”
Shortly after their arrival, Jihad submitted an application for family reunification to Uruguayan authorities. It is a right he has as a recognized refugee. He says that he lost a son when fighter jets with Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces bombed his neighborhood. His other three children, he adds, have spent enough time growing up as half-orphans.
“It’s about time,” says Jihad.
When asked what it was like to hear his wife’s voice on the telephone after such a long time, the expression on his face darkens from one moment to the next. “What about the appointment with Dilma? Or perhaps you know a director who would be interested in making my story into a film?”
Jihad is a difficult case. He seems like a man who is pursuing a thousand plans at the same time but doesn’t know where to begin. He seems restless at times, as if he were trying to make up for the last 12 years in only a few weeks. And then there are days when he doesn’t leave his room.
Sitting in a dark corner of the living room, you can hear him, immersed in his prayers, which take longer than with the other men. Jihad says that he devoured 2,000 books in Guantanamo.
When he recently told the Washington Post that he intended to stage a hunger strike in front of the US Embassy unless his family was allowed to visit him soon, it triggered such an outcry that the Uruguayan foreign minister wanted to speak with him.
Cliff Sloan: The Intermediary
The case has also received a lot of attention in the United States. If Jihad makes good on his threat, closing Guantanamo could become even more complicated than it already is.
When Cliff Sloan, a savvy attorney in his fifties, served as a US envoy in recent years, his goal was to ensure that President Obama would not go down in history as someone who had broken his promises. But Sloan resigned a few days after signing Jihad’s release papers, apparently because things were not progressing as quickly as he would have liked.
Sloan is now sitting at a conference table in the offices of his law firm, not far from the White House. He is wearing a pinstriped suit and round glasses. He chooses his words with care.
“Again and again,” he says, “during my conversations around the world, I kept hearing that the end of Guantanamo would be a great victory in the fight against terrorism.”
There were 166 detainees in Guantanamo when Sloan assumed his position in July 2013. Today, almost two years later, there are still 122. To close Guantanamo, that number would have to be reduced to less than 60, because the annual cost per detainee would then increase to more than $6 million (€5.38 million), making it almost impossible to justify the camp’s existence, both politically and economically.
“It’s difficult,” says Sloan.
In 2009, shortly after assuming office, Obama established a commission to thoroughly investigate the cases of all detainees in Guantanamo at the time. During the course of this investigation, a large majority of the prisoners were “cleared for release.” It was a bureaucratic way of saying that, unfortunately, America had been mistaken. The reason so many detainees are still being held at Guantanamo today is that America doesn’t know what to do with them.
The problem, says Sloan, is that most of the remaining detainees are from countries to which the United States does not deport people. Al-Qaida is gaining influence in Yemen, where the largest number of detainees is from. It’s also impossible to send anyone back to war-torn Syria, partly because US authorities would lose sight of them there.
“The prison itself has now become a security risk,” says Sloan. US officials cannot rule out the possibility that some of the prisoners could seek revenge against America. What are needed now are trustworty third countries that haven’t already shut their doors on negotiations for taking in former Guantanamo inmates.
“I have rarely met a more impressive man than President Mujica,” says Sloan. In fact, he had selected Mujica. Sloan knew that the Uruguayan president, a member of a guerilla group at the time, had been in prison in the 1970s for his involvement in attacks against the military dictatorship. As president, he enacted an abortion law against resistance from the church and legalized marijuana use. It seemed that Mujica was non-dogmatic and steady enough not to cave in to the first wave of opposition. He was to be the man who would open the door to South America for Guantanamo detainees.
Sloan’s plan seemed to work. In December — shortly after the men had moved into their house in Montevideo — Chile, Brazil and Columbia indicated that they were considering taking in detainees. Uruguay has to work now. Anything that could stir the waters would be unhelpful. For instance, if Jihad truly staged his hunger strike in front of the US Embassy, it could very well close the door to South America again.
Omar: The Silent One
“Jihad doesn’t realize that he is involving us in his campaigns,” says Omar. “People lump us together. They think we’re like him: ungrateful and rebellious. We have already tried to talk to him, but it was no use. I don’t know what Jihad is thinking. Even in Guantanamo, when we walked around the yard, we rarely ever spoke to each other.”
Abd al-Hadi Omar Faraj is a quiet 34-year-old who somehow managed to hold onto his smile. He’s wearing narrow, slightly tinted glasses and a baseball cap over his short hair. Unlike Jihad, Omar doesn’t set any conditions. On the contrary, he is pleased to have the company.
Omar is lying on the bed in a hotel room, which he moved to a few days ago. He says that he couldn’t stand the closeness anymore, the unspoken suffering that has settled over the house on Calle Maldonado. He also wanted his own bathroom. The Metro, a very basic hotel paid for by the union, is only a few blocks from the house on Calle Maldonado. Mohammed also stayed at the hotel when he first arrived in Montevideo, but he couldn’t endure being alone for long. A picture a neighbor’s daughter painted for him is on a table in Omar’s room. Next to it is a Spanish dictionary, which Omar is now consulting more and more often, even if there is still little room in his head for foreign grammar. Omar knows that he needs to learn to be on his own, because the government will stop providing him with his monthly stipend of $600 after two years.
He sits up.
“Do you know if they are looking for people here who know how to slaughter a lamb?” he asks.
In his letter to the Uruguayan people, Omar wrote that he had left school after the sixth grade. In the years before he left Syria, he worked for a butcher, who taught him the halal method of slaughtering a lamb. He had hoped that someone would contact him, but it seems that his skills are not in demand in Uruguay. “Maybe I should learn to drive a car,” he says. “I could become a taxi driver.”
He suggests that we go out for a walk along the ocean, which he says he was able to smell in Guantanamo on some days. There are joggers and cyclists on the waterfront promenade. Couples are sitting on a jetty, holding hands. Sometimes, when Omar spots an attractive woman, he shyly turns around to look at her.
“I don’t understand why they cut off our phone,” he says. “Why don’t they just give us a credit, like 10 hours a month?”
He hasn’t heard from his parents in 51 days, he says. The telephone lines have been destroyed in the city where they live. No one has Skype, and Omar’s only way of communicating with his parents is by calling his father’s mobile phone.
“He didn’t know that I was still alive,” says Omar.
When asked what it was like to hear his father’s voice again after such a long time, Omar stares at the sea and swallows.
“When he called,” says Omar, “he sounded like an old man and a stranger. When I said: Hey, this is your son, he didn’t say anything for a moment. I heard him crying. After a while, he asked me how I was, and I said I was doing well. Luckily he didn’t ask too many questions.” His youngest sister, who wasn’t even in school when Omar was sent to Guantanamo, now has a child of her own.
Omar was 19 in the spring of 2001, when he left the Syrian city of Hama to avoid military service. He also hoped to earn a little money abroad so that he could use it to start a family later on. Omar went to Tehran, where he lived with a butcher, but as a Sunni, he says, he was treated with hostility by the Iranians. He left Iran and went to Kabul, which he describes as his biggest mistake. Omar was stacking orange crates in a grocery store when al-Qaida terrorists crashed two aircraft into the towers of the World Trade Center in New York.
Suddenly the world had changed.
American military aircraft began appearing in the skies above Kabul. Soldiers with the Afghan Northern Alliance entered Kabul, where they hunted down Arabs who, in their minds, could only be in the country for one reason: They must have had something to do with the 9/11 attacks. Within weeks, Kabul had changed into a place where he no longer felt safe, says Omar.
He took a taxi toward Pakistan, not realizing that the Americans were now paying bounties for men like him. He was arrested at the border and, six months later, on June 8, 2002, he was flown to Guantanamo. When he gave the US authorities his account of what had happened, they treated it as a “typical, fabricated al-Qaida plot.” He was now a threat to the security of the United States.
Omar says that he has forgotten how many times he was asked what his connection to al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was, how often he prayed and whether the hostel where he was staying in Kabul was a terrorist cell.
Perhaps it isn’t surprising that their stories are similar to a certain extent. Jihad used to be a truck driver before an Afghan businessman convinced him to sell honey in Kabul. Mohammed, born into a large Palestinian family, had joined the Sunni missionary movement Tablighi Jamaat, which had promised him that he could make a living as a teacher in Afghanistan. All of the men had traveled down long and convoluted paths that had placed them in the wrong place at the wrong time.
When Omar is asked when he began to believe that President Mujica was serious about accepting him for asylum, he laughs derisively. “When I stepped off the plane here,” he says. “They had this method in Guantanamo. Sometimes they would show up in our cell with civilian clothing, and they would say to us: ‘You’re going to be released now.’ Then they would take us out to the airfield, but then they just drove us around the island a few times.”
Mujica: The President
Each of the men seems to have a different approach to his newfound freedom. While Jihad’s thoughts usually revolve around the past, Omar tries to imagine a future, and yet he has trouble launching into that future. Perhaps this is why they sometimes feel as if Uruguay were merely another prison, just with better living conditions: a gap in time where the present hardly exists. On the other hand, perhaps it’s still too early to tell.
In February, union representatives took Abdul and Mohammed to a factory outside the city. There were two positions available there, one in the tool store and one in the cafeteria. It was easy work, but the two men turned down the jobs before they had even finished looking around. A few days later, President Mujica drove his Beetle to Calle Maldonado. He came alone, accompanied only by an interpreter. Mujica sat down on the sofa and muttered that he had not come as president but as a father figure and friend, and someone who had also spent time in prison.
Mujica was in prison for almost 15 years, most of them in total isolation. “So I know what I’m talking about,” he said. Then he launched into a lengthy monologue.
He talked about the immigrants who had cultivated the land with their bare hands, ordinary, tenacious people who — like his own father — had taken a long journey to seek their fortunes in a foreign place. He too, Mujica said, had reconnected with his life by working in the fields. It was a dressing-down, and the message was clear: Stop making such a fuss about everything.
A few days later Mujica, speaking on the radio, said that the men from Guantanamo had the delicate hands of middle-class intellectuals.
It is a Saturday morning, and Mujica is sitting on a plastic chair in front of his shed, with the sun shining in his face. He is wearing a dirty tracksuit and drinking a cup of tea. He comes across as a man who would rather listen to the birds than the chatter of guests at a state reception.
After a while, Mujica gets up and walks away without saying a word. He returns a few minutes layer, at the wheel of a tractor, which he drives into the shed, where he disconnects the plow. Then he parks the tractor outside, next to a field. It’s Mujica’s standard performance for journalists who come to see him.
Then he motions for us to follow him.
He walks across a meadow, ducking under clotheslines, before sitting down on a bench in front of his house — the same bench where the former king of Spain recently sat. He had come to see for himself how Mujica lived. He twists his wrinkled face into a toothless smile.
“To be honest,” he says, “I don’t know what the Arabs are complaining about. We pay them $600 a month. One in six Uruguayans lives on the same amount of money, and most of them work.”
Mujica takes off his baseball cap.
“One of the men asked me if I was able to work two months after being released,” he says. “I was ready after two hours.”
Mujica says he understands that he is comparing apples and oranges. Unlike the former Guantanamo detainees, he was able to rely on his language, his wife and his politics at the time. But most of all, he says, he learned in prison that the expectations we have of freedom are exaggerated. All Mujica needed was a piece of land where he could grow vegetables. Even today, when he gets tired of being around other people, he withdraws to the seat of his tractor.
Asked if it was a mistake to bring the Arabs into the country, he responds, “Absolutely not.” After all, he adds, “there was no evidence against them. They were the hostages of a regime, just as we once were. When I met Obama a year ago, I had the sense that his intention to close Guantanamo is honest.”
The Americans first approached him in an official capacity in January 2014, when he received a call from Vice President Joe Biden. Soon afterwards, he received a visit from Cliff Sloan, who told him that Washington’s condition was that the detainees could not leave their new home for two years. Mujica says he rejected the Americans’ demands. Instead, he negotiated with Washington and extracted the promise that the United States would open its market to Uruguayan citrus fruit. He also wanted the approval of Cuban President Raul Castro, an old companion from his guerilla days.
Ten days after Mujica had greeted the Arabs at the airport, the frosty relationship between Washington and Havana began to thaw. Cuba released an American and Obama released three Cuban agents who had been imprisoned in the United States for years. Mujica says that this was one of his conditions when he was in Washington in May 2014.
But then the detainee release was delayed by another seven months while the US Congress debated whether to approve the extradition. Then the election campaign over Mujica’s successor began in Uruguay. Tabaré Vázquez, the candidate representing Mujica’s party, asked Mujica not to burden his campaign with the issue of the Arabs from Guantanamo.
They were left with less than a month to prepare for the detainees’ arrival, says union official Gambera. It was typical of Mujica, he adds, because Mujica is someone who prefers to think in broad terms instead of concerning himself with details such as psychologists and interpreters.
In April 2015, President Vázquez announced that he intended to request financial assistance from Obama. In Chile, there was now talk that Uruguay no longer had any interest in accepting released detainees. Cliff Sloan’s plan was threatening to unravel. Perhaps it was naïve to believe that people like Omar or Jihad could be quietly disposed of in a country like Uruguay.
Mohammed: The Disappointed One
On one of these evenings, Jihad is sitting, ghostlike, in front of the computer in the foyer, looking at photos from a Syrian prison. They depict bodies covered in blood and guards smiling for the camera. The images are reminiscent of another symbol. “It’s like Abu Ghraib,” says Jihad, who believes that one of the torture victims is his daughter’s husband.
He seems absent. He hasn’t taken any sleeping pills for days. He is now refusing to be seen by doctors, and Jihad has also withdrawn his application to be reunited with his family. He is refusing, once again, just as he did in Guantanamo, where refusing to eat was the only way to protest against the conditions there. It seems as if he were unwilling to confront reality.
On this day, Ali is wearing a thick bandage over his right eye, where a Cuban doctor performed an operation.
Omar, who moved back into the house a few days ago because the union had stopped paying for the hotel, says that he has never kissed a woman, and that the yearning to do so eats away at him. He believes that a woman would help him to forget what happened to him. “But where should I look?” he asks. “Who needs a man like me?”
Mohammed is in his room, where he spends most of his time in bed with his laptop. He isn’t keen on meeting with visitors from Germany.
In 2010, when Germany was negotiating the acceptance of three detainees with the United States, Mohammed was one of the candidates. The German government representatives met with him so many times that Mohammed believed they were serious. He even practiced his German with a dictionary his attorney had given him. He says a few German words — “Tisch” (table) and “Stuhl” (chair). “I still haven’t forgotten them,” he adds.
At some point during those weeks in which Mohammed was waiting to finally be released, the communication with Germany was discontinued. It was only later that he learned that then Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière had decided to reduce the number of detainees from three to two, so that it wouldn’t seem as if the Americans were taking advantage of him. “That disappointment was worse than anything else,” says Mohammed.
Now he is sitting in a far corner of the world, occasionally chatting with a former cellmate who now lives in Germany, in a town on the Rhine River. “He’s doing well,” says Mohammed. “He has a good income and his family lives with him in his house.” He sometimes wonders what his life would be like if he had been the one to move into that house on the Rhine.
Freedom is not a value in itself, not after those 12 years, and not just for Mohammed. Half a year after the six men arrived in their new home, the euphoria has faded away. Too many expectations have been destroyed by reality. Disappointment has turned into rage.
The one thing America had feared happens on the evening of April 24. Jihad makes good on his threat. Together with the other former detainees, he walks from the house on Calle Maldonado to the fortress-like American Embassy. They unfurl their prayer rugs in front of the high wall surrounding the building. Jihad tells the assembled journalists that good intentions are not enough for them. They have rights, he says, and they want to meet with the ambassador. They are told to submit their request through official channels.
Since then, they have been camped out in front of the embassy and have been negotiating, not with the Americans but with the new Uruguayan government and the United Nations refugee agency. They want more money and assistance for their families. To them, their demands represent the price of 12 lost years.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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